But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband (but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not send his wife away. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Too often, this passage is wrongly used as a rigid doctrinal proof-text that divorce is never an option for a Christian and that all divorced Christians must remain single for the rest of their lives. Reading the paragraph in isolation of the surrounding passage, one could get that impression. Read in context, however, we see that is not at all Paul’s intent.
In this passage Paul is addressing specific questions asked by the church at Corinth. He is not addressing generalized mandates to apply to all relational situations, but rather pastoral input in regard to specific questions about specific situations.
We are not privy to the questions in the preceding letter from the Corinthian church. However, from Paul’s responses we can glean a general idea what the questions were about. Apparently, they included questions about whether a single Christian should remain unmarried, whether a Christian married to an unbeliever should divorce to marry a Christian, and whether a married Christian should live a celibate life apart from their spouse.
The Corinthian Christians were, apparently, quite sincere in these questions. As zealous new converts living in a pagan culture, they took seriously Christ’s admonitions to count all other relationships as of no value in comparison with our relationship with Christ…and were determined to demonstrate their commitment to Christ.
In the first seven verses of the chapter, Paul focuses on physical marital intimacy, encouraging married couples to “stop depriving one another” (verse 5). Paul then shifts his focus from intimacy within a marriage to legal marital status. In verses 8-9 (see previous post) Paul tells the divorced and widowed that it is best if they remain unmarried, but that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
In verses 12-16, Paul turns his attention to those who are married to unbelievers, explaining that their spouse’s lack of faith is not reason to divorce, and that they should live together in peace and harmony, if possible. However, realizing that may not be possible, he instructs in verse 15, “Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.”
Verses 10-11 transition from the need for Christian couples to live together in marital intimacy to the question of what a Christian married to an unbeliever is to do. In these two verses, Paul addresses separation and divorce specific to both situations…continuous separation from a spouse and divorce for the purpose of marrying another.
In looking at verses 10-11, we must first recognize that this is not a rigid edict for all divorced Christians to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives. This is clear from the preceding verses 8-9, in which Paul specifically told the divorced and widowed that “it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
What is Paul’s intent, then, in verses 10-11?
First, notice the legal marital status. In the first half of the sentence, the woman is very clearly married.
But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord, that the wife should not leave her husband…
As Paul exhorts her to be reconciled, if possible, she is still married though separated. We know this, because Paul refers to her husband. Married women have husbands. Unmarried women do not have husbands.
…but if she does leave…be reconciled to her husband…
For comparison, refer to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, where the former husband is referred to as former husband…not as husband.
So, Paul is exhorting a married woman who is separated from her husband to, if feasible, be reconciled to her husband.Paul never exhorts a divorced woman to be reconciled to her former husband. Click To Tweet
Yet, even as Paul exhorts the separated wife to reconcile with her husband, he also recognizes that reconciliation may not be feasible, in which case he advises divorce.
…(but if she does leave, she must remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband)…
Unmarried means un-married…for a married woman to become unmarried, she must first divorce. So we see that Paul is clearly giving instruction against continuous marital separation.Paul instructs to either reconcile or divorce…don’t remain married yet separated. Click To Tweet
Interestingly, many Christian counselors give advice in direct opposition to Paul’s instruction. Some advise abused women to separate from their abusive husband while prohibiting divorce. Others advise that even after a divorce, she should still try to reconcile. In contrast, Paul instructed married women to reconcile if feasible, and if not feasible to divorce. He is quite clear that she is not to remain married and separated…a stressful state of limbo that is emotionally unhealthy for both parties, as well as any children involved.
Now, what about the phrase remain unmarried? Too often, remain is read as eternally remain…and rigidly interpreted to mean a Christian who has divorced must remain unmarried for the rest of their life…that they can never marry someone else.
This erroneous interpretation completely ignores the whole purpose of divorce. Divorce is granted for the purpose of legally dissolving the marriage relationship leaving neither party in obligation to the other (reference Deuteronomy 24:1-4). Where there is no covenant there is no concern of violation of covenant obligation. Someone who is unmarried has no spouse to remain faithful to, and therefore is free to marry. We can see this clearly illustrated in this same passage, where Paul clearly states that those who are unmarried (divorced) or released from a wife (divorced) are free to marry.
But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (verses 8-9)
…Are you released from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned… (verses 27-28)
So, we know Paul did not intend this as a life-long edict to never marry again. However, recognizing that one of the apparent questions being addressed had to do with divorcing an unbelieving spouse to marry a Christian, the meaning becomes clear. Paul is saying that they must not divorce for the explicit purpose of marrying someone else. He also references this as being in keeping with the words of Christ.
But to the married I give instructions, not I, but the Lord…
To me, this is a clear reference to Christ’s words in Matthew 19:9 (and other similar passages).
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.
In referencing Christ’s words in this manner, Paul also gives us the benefit of further commentary on Jesus’ meaning. I have posted elsewhere on the Matthew 19 passage. However, Paul’s reference within this passage aids in understanding that Jesus also was speaking against divorcing for the explicit purpose of marrying someone else, not a life-long edict against ever marrying again. Only someone who is in a marriage covenant can violate their marriage covenant. Where there is no marriage (divorced) there can be no violation of marriage commitments.
Paul did not directly address abuse in this passage. However, in how he has applied godly principles to pastoral counseling we can see he clearly leaves open a godly avenue of escape from an abusive marriage. He clearly advises divorce for marriages where peaceful reconciliation is not feasible. He clearly advises against extended separation without divorce. He clearly allows that marriage at some time after divorce is not sin and is preferable to undue temptation.
If you are in an abusive marriage, you have Paul’s blessing to leave and seek divorce. If at some point down the road you feel led to marry someone else, you have Paul’s blessing in that marriage as well.